There was no graphic novel to better define the spirit of DC Black Label than Batman: Damned when the publisher announced its prestige line for mature readers. The long-awaited sequel to Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's acclaimed JOKER re-imagining, the series earned acclaim of its own, dropping Batman into a world of supernatural horror beyond anything he has faced (or beaten) before.
Screen Rant had the chance to speak with Azzarello about Batman: Damned for the release of the collected hardcover edition of the three-part series (now available in stores and comic book shops everywhere). The mystery surrounding the decade-long wait is solved, with both the original JOKER's shocking success and changing tastes in superhero stories to blame. To hear the details directly from the source, along with the other Batman stories that were almost told, read on for our full interview with Brian Azzarello below:
It's funny to look back now and imagine all the people reading JOKER and wondering when you and Lee Bermejo were going to make a follow-up or spiritual sequel, only to spend the next ten years wondering why you didn't--as you both were going through the ten years of trying to get this book made. I won't ask you if you would do any of that differently...
[Laughs] That's funny. That's funny.
... But I would assume that's a unique experience, spending ten years trying to tell a story as people keep asking why you haven't yet.
You know, this is actually the second project it's taken me a decade to do?
Yeah, I did Batman: Europa. That took eleven years actually.
Was there a point in developing the story that you had--maybe not a grand revelation necessarily, but a point where momentum started picking up to the point that this series seemed to finally be moving towards release?
Well when we were talking about it originally after JOKER came out, we were just talking like, 'There is nothing to follow this up with.' DC had no idea JOKER was going to be as successful as it was. So it wasn't even called Black Label then, we were calling it Jokerverse. Black Label kind of came into being... man, I don't even know when we were calling it that. But it was gaining some traction and some momentum, and then Watchmen came out. And it was R-Rated, and it didn't do so well. The studio, and we work for the studio, they were like, 'No no no no, we don't want to do any mature readers superhero stuff.' So it got killed.
There is actually a script out there, I don't think Cliff--one thing we were going to do was Cliff Chiang and I were going to do the old '40s Batman. You know, with the guns. There was a script and everything. Gotham City got moved to the west coast, it was sort of Like L.A. from the Raymond Chandler times. It didn't happen.
Damned was... These are characters that Lee and I have some affection for. There was this crazy sort of event that DCU was planning and, I don't know how I got roped into it, but I was going to do six months of it. It was going to be like a two-year-long event. It was basically Justice League Dark with Batman in it. I was talking to Lee about that kind of stuff, and Lee said to me, 'I would love to do that.' Then that whole thing fell apart luckily, but Jim Lee really liked what we had for what we were going to do. He said, 'Why don't we try to launch Black Label again, with this?' So I said, 'Sure.' What am I going to say, no? We kind of got rid of all the Justice League Dark stuff... it was kind of getting in the way of what the actual real story was going to be.
Damned does not give the impression that these characters would unite for a single mission.
I don't think any of those characters would unite for a single mission [Laughs]. You know? They just don't work that way. I guess DC is publishing a Justice League Dark again, but... John Constantine leading a team does not make any sense to me.
That may be the divide between the Vertigo fans and newer readers.
In Batman: Damned, it seems like their base relationship is kind of a subtle loathing, even short of tolerating eachother.
Who would trust John Constantine to lead a team? Chances are you're not coming back from that mission if he's your leader.
One of the things that stands out for me in the book is that now, the most outspoken Batman fans will be the ones to say, 'Batman has a plan for every scenario.' But Damned seems to go completely against that. You have a line from Constantine considering Batman, and how he is "so relentlessly driven that failure is met violently."
That's not something you see in most Batman stories. Was that an idea or a perspective you had wanted to explore, or something that developed with the rest of the story?
Well I guess what was... What you said about him always having a plan, and always being prepared. That's all very true, and it's also been done to death. To me it's just kind of dull. You know? I like to write stories about people making mistakes. I think that's what defines us as human, is our mistakes. And how we try to fix them, and make them worse. That's what good stories do. I just wanted to take him out of his element. tell a Batman story where he is not in control.
He doesn't have the answers.
No, he has none of them!
Was that part of the reason for Damned looking back at Thomas and Martha Wayne's marriage, too? There's the idea that Bruce can only have the perspective of a little boy.
Right. And not recognizing that mistakes are being made, because he's just a kid.
I know a lot of people will likely be upset to think of Thomas and Martha Wayne in a more tarnished, less-than-perfect light. Do you think about that at all when you're writing?
No, no, not at all. I've been at this long enough to know that some people will be precious about this stuff. Some people will scream bloody murder. But I'm just trying to tell a good story. I'm trying to tell something new. Something that hasn't happened before. That's something that, when Lee and I approach these things, that's always at the front of our minds. What can we do that hasn't been done?
You're speaking in an age where the 'shared universe' is the buzz word that companies are chasing. It's funny now to think of Black Label, and the people who will see Damned as... almost the reverse order. That Black Label is something for creators to be freed from the constraints of canon or continuity, when that is just how you write anyway.
Yeah, that's true. I've done extended runs on just a few books. Wonder Woman. But that was all brand new continuity, and I really stayed away from everything else DC was doing with that character. There was no Superman smooching in my Wonder Woman story.
It does kind of come from the people who are, in one sense, the most passionate about these characters. I want to be able to hand Batman: Damned to somebody and NOT have them ask, 'Where does this fit into continuity?' That's almost the opposite of what I want them to think picking up a story. The story is the story.
Well my audience has always been my mother. She knows nothing about these characters other than the pop culture myths of them. So I try to write these characters, and approach them as if you don't need to know anything about them. If you don't have any baggage... Yes, it's interesting if you know who Etrigan is from Kirby's Etrigan. it's not necessary that you know that character is Etrigan in Batman: Damned. He has a function on his own, without being a callout to something that's happened before.
Well on the same point of not fitting into the neat box some readers might like, the structure of Batman: Damned is also something different. You've referred to this story as "elliptical" in how it's framed. How unique was that for you, and I suppose I'm curious what you were hoping readers would take away from the story being concluded that way.
I'm not... I... I don't know [Laughs]. I'm not going to say that. I'm not going to say what I want anyone to take away. What I want people to take away is what it means to them. Since it's come out I've done a couple conventions, and people that I've talked to, fans, none of them think it's the same ending. They all have a different sort of interpretation of it. Which is great, you know? That's all I can ask for. That's the best thing for me, man. I don't like telling anyone what to think. I want you to think on your own.
Batman: Damned is available in collected hardcover editions in book stores and comic book shops everywhere.